26 Apr

Ram of Darby

As I walked out to Darby, I met the other day,
One of the finest rams, sir, that ever your eyes did see.

With my towry owry owry, with my towry owry-ee
He was one of the finest rams, sir, that ever your eyes did see.

This ram was fat behind and this ram was fat before,
And this ram was ten years old and I’m sure he was no more. With my…

He had four feet to gang on and four more feet to stand,
And every foot he had, sir, would cover an acre of land. With my..

The hair upon his back, sir, it grew so mighty high,
That the swallows built there nest but the young ones dare not fly. With my…

The horns upon this ram, they reached up to the moon,
A man went up in February, and never came down til June. With my…

Perhaps you think I’m joking, perhaps you think I lie,
But if you’d been to Darby you’d have seen him well as I. With my…

This song of tall tales (tails?) dates to the early 19th century in England and quite possibly well before that. It became widely known in England where it is still sung (and acted out) as part of mummers plays in Sheffield at Christmas time. It crossed the Atlantic and versions were collected widely in the United States where some singers swore it was a favorite of George Washington himself. In Ireland, the masterful Cork singer Elizabeth Cronin sang a nice lilty version that shares its tune with the Irish song “Tá Mo Madra.” Many American variants share a plainer melody that in Minnesota was used by Hubbard County singer Reuben Phillips for his version of another song full of outrageous lies about a deer hunt called “The Sally Buck.”

The above melody comes from the Beaver Island, Michigan singer Johnny W. Green who sang it for Alan Lomax’s recording machine in 1939. Green’s melody, like Cronin’s, is more lilty and complex than the more standard tunes. The abundance of Irish immigrants on the island during Green’s lifetime supplied him with a rich store of Irish melodies and his versions of common folk songs often give a more Irish flavor to a well-travelled song. You can hear the Green recording via the Library of Congress website thanks to the work of the American Folklife Center there. For the text above, I used mainly Green’s words but borrowed some poetics from versions collected in “mainland” Michigan by Gardner and Chickering and another version from Vermont printed by Flanders.